America, America, By Ethan Canin

A big, exhilarating novel that recalls Richard Ford
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

A decade after For Kings and Planets, Ethan Canin's intensely eloquent novel that anatomised fraught relationships between social unequals, comes an even more robust exploration of a man's life uplifted by the complex influences of patronage, friendship, love and duty.

As Corey Sifter works alongside his father on a delicate plumbing job, his diligence is noticed by a benign local landowner, Liam Metarey. Humbly raised "not only with the creed of hard work but with the almost religious understanding that only discipline and diligence brought reward", Corey graduates from odd jobs on the magnificent Aberdeen West estate, built up from the Metarey family's quarrying and lumber enterprises, to trusted household errands and an unexpected friendship with the Metarey daughters, Clara and Christian. Clara seems to share her mother's hysterical, prescient edginess while Christian, bewildering Corey with rationed kisses, has her father's clear-sighted, egalitarian views.

Principled and generous in supporting his local upstate New York workforce, Metarey is also bankrolling senator Bonwiller's bid for the Democratic presidential candidacy. It's 1971: Bonwiller's loud support for labour and civil rights legislation, and a swift withdrawal from the Vietnam debacle, means their tails are up in pursuit of the beleaguered President Nixon. But proximity to the Bonwiller campaign brings collusion. Initially overwhelmed to be "a teenaged boy who had just learned to drive... entrusted with the care of a senator", Corey soon finds an awkwardness resulting from overheard snippets of strategy: "I felt I could no longer be candid with my mother."

Corey's scrupulous, probing narration hinges upon just such subtle shifts in fierce loyalties, and Canin's considerable prowess as a storyteller derives from the many ambiguities defining these relationships that he has the courage to leave unresolved. How far did Corey's mother negotiate his privileged adoption by the Metareys? Why do the Metarey girls compete over his artless, tongue-tied attention? Who knew and did what about the frozen body that emerges midway through the Bonwiller campaign? Capricious political fortunes are the meat of this excellent, capacious novel, but Corey's liminal maturity and understanding of the world, and his searching meditations on supplicant relationships, integrity and a man's place in society give America, America its strong savour.

Canin's ambitious title is not hubristic so much as a resigned sigh. Corey reflects that for all his faults, Bonwiller had done more for civil rights and labour causes than any in congressional history, but that frozen body quietly insists on the evergreen doubt: how far can we trust our politicians? Canin reverses the anticipated answer: "The way working men and women have forsaken the very politicians who could help them most speaks of the primacy of emotion in politics."

America, America is a big, exhilarating novel in many ways, but it's the primacy of emotion dominating the personal sphere that holds most interest. By late middle age, Corey's philosophical engagement with his comfortable surroundings strongly resembles the buoyant introspections of Frank Bascombe, the realtor negotiating smalltown American life in Richard Ford's epic Sportswriter trilogy.

Perceptive, insistent characters and Corey's partial and ambivalent recollections give a similar moral complexity to America, America, which delivers an autopsy of late 20th-century American electioneering and social progress.